So for the first in this series of who knows how many posts, we travel back to 1976 for a look at this great little action thriller from Tony Kenrick. And when I say little, I mean it. Like so many paperbacks from that particular decade, this example comes in at a lean and mean 215 pages. No padding in those days. No unnecessary sub-plots. Just wham-bam and thank you very much, I'm outta here.
And I love the cover too. Or at least the one on my particular edition, with its close-up of a couple of rolls of cash interspersed with various rounds of ammo...
In fact, the very eagle-eyed amongst you might notice a slight similarity in the design with my own banner above. If you're gonna borrow, borrow from the classics - that's what I say.
Anyway, I do feel a certain kinship with Mr Kenrick, in that we both started out in the advertising world before turning to writing thrillers. Not only that, but we also both ended up as expatriates. In Kenrick's case, he came from Sydney, Australia, and spent many years as an advertising copywriter in England, Canada, and the USA, before becoming an author and moving to Spain with his Welsh wife and their kids. So all in all the guy could be considered a true man of the world, which I totally respect. But for now let's get back the focus of this post, and that's the book itself.
I first read 'The Seven Day Soldiers' in my teens when my dad brought a hardback copy back from the local library. Once he'd finished it, I gave it a go and found myself immediately caught up in the story and found myself racing towards the end. I do remember being impressed by the story's characters and the various twists and turns I encountered. The book soon went back to the library, of course, and that was that. I moved onto other books and soon forgot about it. But a few years ago the title came back to me for some reason and I had a look for it on Amazon. As soon as I found a paperback copy, I quickly snapped it up and the moment it arrived I read it again in one sitting. And guess what. It turned out to be just as gripping as I remembered, which was a very pleasant surprise.
As far as the plot's concerned, we begin with Barney Rivers of New York State. He's your typical suburban everyman with the wife, the kids, and the mortgage. He's also broke. And he's not the only one. His neighbours, Tom and George, are also finding it hard to make ends meet. So they devise an ingenious little plan to tap a few grand from somebody's Swiss bank account by mail (ah, the innocent seventies) and are astounded when the scam actually works. They get the few thousand bucks apiece that they wanted and all of a sudden the three men are in the black again. Everything's roses.
But naturally it doesn't stay that way, otherwise there'd be no book. So rather than do the sensible thing and quit while they're ahead, the three get greedy and do it again. Only this time they try for more. And it works again, except they now find themselves with 167 million dollars of somebody else's money in their account. And that somebody turns out to be a ruthless ex-Caribbean dictator, who has his own small private army and no shortage of resources to track down the thieves.
Barney, aware that returning the money won't stop the forces he's set in motion, figures they've got a week at most before this ex-dictator closes in and massacres them (along their families). So he decides the only solution is to hire a specialist to teach them how to fight back. To this end, they're pointed towards a badass ex-Marine drill sergeant named Cambell, who was dishonourably discharged and who wouldn't say no to a decent payday. Although dubious at first, Cambell finally accepts the job and sets about the task of making soldiers out of sausages. In seven days.
And bang, there's your title. 'The Seven Day Soldiers.' Catchy, huh?
Kenrick does a pretty good job of constructing the story so that the first half of the book sets up the situation and the players, with the second half focusing on the men's training for the inevitable showdown to come. And he does a nice job with the four main protagonists too, with each man given his own unique personality and his own voice. And the dialogue's not bad, either. For instance, a sample from the initial exchange between Rivers and Cambell:
'Who are you?'
'I told you, my name's Rivers. I live up near Tarrytown. I dipped into a man's Swiss bank account and he turned out to have friends.'
'Who gave you my name?'
'A sergeant I talked to. He remembered you from Fort Jackson. His name's Larsen.'
Cambell absorbed the information. 'Did Larsen tell you I could get you guns?'
'No he didn't. And if you can't, tell me now and I'll get out of here.'
'Goodbye,' Cambell said.
Simple and effective. Just how I like it. And I also like Kenrick's prose. For some reason it puts me in mind of Donald Westlake with it's witty, ironic turns of phrase. Here are the very first two paragraphs:
'It's a well known fact that Nature, that 'Creative and controlling force in the Universe,' as Webster's has it, abhors a vacuum. It's also a fact, although less well known, that Nature abhors an imbalance, too. Or too much of one thing and not enough of another. And the way it moves to adjust these imbalances, and the medium it sometimes chooses as an agent, can be very surprising indeed.
'In this instance, and this is what the story is about, the imbalance was a situation in which there existed a paucity of good and an over-abundance of evil, a situation that occurs all too often and so is not in itself very surprising. But the medium it chose to do something about it was Barney Rivers of Westchester, New York. Which is absolutely staggering.'
Not a bad way to start a book, is it? I'm not entirely sure it would work in today's marketplace, but it still pulls the reader in with a considerable amount of style.
So is it the perfect thriller? Well, I wouldn't go that far. For a start, this is an unabashed boys' book. It even says so on the cover: 'Should be on every gun freak's reading list.' And true enough, the reader is given numerous explanations throughout the story of what a certain weapon will do and what the effects will be. Added to which, the story's few female characters are little more than ciphers, something that's almost unheard of in this new millennium. And although Kenrick supplies a hand-drawn map of the battleground, when the final battle comes it's often hard to figure out which character's doing what, and where. Or perhaps that's just me. I don't know.
But I do know that despite these small gripes, 'The Seven Day Soldiers' still holds up as a great retro thriller novel with some great plot twists thrown in for good measure, and is definitely well worth seeking out in the second-hand marketplace.
* On a side note, the book was very quickly optioned by Hollywood as a potential vehicle for Steve McQueen. Of course, this was back in the days when just about everything was offered to McQueen, and it's unlikely he knew much about it. But still, when you're reading the book, you can see how seamlessly the actor would have slipped into the role of the taciturn, no-nonsense ex-drill-sergeant, Cambell, (who, without giving too much away, turns out to be the star of the story). It's like the role was made for him. Yet another one of life's 'what-ifs'.
** Another little piece of trivia. Although no official connection has ever been made, there was a film made in the eighties called 'Let's Get Harry' which 'borrowed' many of the plot elements from Kenrick's book. In this one, a group of white-collar pals hire a professional mercenary to train them up as soldiers in an equally unrealistic amount of time. Admittedly, it's for a different reason (they want to rescue another pal who's been kidnapped overseas), but the similarities are unmistakeable. It has to be said that it's not a particularly good film, although it does have an interesting cast (e.g. Glenn Frey, Gary Busey, and a shaven-headed, goateed Robert Duvall as the merc). But when the director disowns the movie before release and it then gets released straight to video, you kind of know you're onto a loser. To date it has never been released on DVD, although for those desperate to see it, the film can be found on Youtube.